Archive for September, 2009

Bicycle holiday

Six-year-old Peach has had her heart set on a bicycle for weeks now.  Beans (8 years old) has had one for a couple of years, and learned to ride a tw0-wheel bike last summer.  Even 4-year-old Banana recently acquired a bike.  But so far no one has had Peach’s size in stock.  So the Cap’n and I went to Beit Shemesh today to hit the shuk, shop at the American foods market, and check out the stock at Bike Ben (where we bought Beans’s bike).

We are aware that secular Jewish kids love Yom Kippur, and that the streets of Tel Aviv–and even the Ayalon Freeway–are crowded with kids whizzing around on bicycles.  Some people figure that kids under the age of bar or bat mitzvah can do as they please since they don’t have to fast.  Other parents are a little annoyed at the lack of regard for one of the holiest days of the year.  And I’m not sure how ambulance drivers feel, but the Cap’n read that ambulances drive much slower on Yom Kippur for fear of hitting a kid on a bike.

Despite knowing all these things, coming from Efrat which is nearly all religious, we somehow didn’t expect that the stock at Bike Ben would be almost nil.  The guy there was apologetic that they didn’t have a 16″ bike for Peach, but after shrugging his shoulders, he said resignedly, “It’s the day after The Bicycle Holiday [Chag HaOfanayim].”


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Split pea soup

My favorite soup has always been split pea.  As a kid I could eat a large can of Campbell’s chunky, with the bits of ham, potato, and carrot.  It’s remained my favorite even in adulthood, though in recent years buying the stuff in cans has been, well, no longer an option.

But keeping kosher changed my attitude toward this as toward so many other foods I loved but couldn’t buy anymore: Don’t give up.  Learn to make it yourself.  (And if you can’t make it yourself, find something else that satisfies.)

I’ve experimented with the recipe over a number of years and come up with one that echoes exactly the texture and richness of the stuff I remember from childhood.  This is at least a half-day affair, so for people who work outside the home, making it on the weekend and freezing it in meal-sized containers is a wise choice.

About buying split peas: I know they’re dried, but buy them in a store that has a good deal of turnover.  I get them from a Yemenite couple who have a popular legumes, rice, and spice stall in the Beit Shemesh shuk.  I once bought them from an old man with a stall elsewhere in the shuk, who had very little to sell and none of it very appealing looking.  The soup came out lousy.

The other things about split peas is that they must be soaked—the longer, the better.  I sort them (pulling out small stones, withered peas, and anything else foreign I don’t like the look of) and soak them at least 8 hours.  However, I read recently that soaking 20 hours is optimal.  I’m making a batch today that I’ll have soaked for 24 hours.  Regardless, the longer they soak, the less time they take to cook.

The one thing I miss from the canned stuff is the smoky flavor imparted by the ham.  Pea soup is filling, but it benefits from a salty component.  Nowadays I serve it with Bacos at the table, or slice and sauté vegetarian hot dogs or sausage to serve on the side as well.  For those who don’t want the smoothness of the soup interrupted by these things, a friend once recommended adding chipotle flavoring to the soup.  Chipotle peppers are smoked, but still spicy.  For those who want smoky and love spicy, I recommend making the soup according to the regular recipe, and serving it at the table with McIlhenny’s Chipotle Tabasco or pureed chipotle peppers (they come in a small can, in adobo sauce) in a small dish for those who would like to add them to their own bowl.  I don’t recommend adding the hot spices directly to the soup pot since I’m not sure what will happen to the flavor over time (store in the refrigerator or freezer).

When reheating starchy foods like potato-leek or pea soup, use low flame.  Medium or high flame often result in the soup burning or sticking to the bottom of the pan.  Heat gently and stir frequently to prevent this happening.

One more thing about pea soup: As it sits, it continues to absorb water.  You may find after refrigerating or freezing a portion of soup that it has thickened even more.  If this is the case, simply add small amounts of water to the soup as you reheat it until the desired consistency is reached, stirring well to incorporate the water.

If you’re making a batch the size I make, use a very large stock pot.  Here are the ingredients I use to make a huge batch for freezing.  Halve the recipe if you wish.

Vegetable oil

2-3 onions, finely diced

6 cloves garlic, minced

2-3 sticks celery, chopped

2 kg split peas

12 pints water

1 bag bouquet garni (optional; could contain parsley, thyme, bay leaf)

4 large carrots, peeled and cut into bite-sized chunks

4 medium potatoes, scrubbed and cut into bite-sized chunks

Salt and pepper to taste

When the peas have been soaked and rinsed well, pour a few tablespoons of oil into the bottom of the pot—just enough almost to cover it.  Heat the oil to medium and add onions.  Stir to coat with oil, then turn the heat down to low and cook slowly, covered, about 15 minutes, stirring 2-3 times to prevent sticking.

Add garlic and celery and stir to incorporate.  Cook another 5 minutes or so.

Add split peas and water to the pot.  Stir well and raise the heat to high.  Bring to a boil, stir, then lower heat again.  Cook covered on low flame, stirring every half hour or so, until peas begin to disintegrate.  When visiting the pot to stir, skim off any foam that has formed on the surface.  (For well-soaked peas, this might be 2-4 hours.  I have sometimes cooked them for 5-6 hours if they were soaked for less time.)

When peas are soft and coming apart, and the soup as a whole is thickening, blend.  (I use an immersion blender—so handy.  If you use a regular blender, it is probably good to let the soup cool a while before transferring portions of it safely to the blender.)  When soup is blended, return to the pot and add carrots and potatoes.  Cook on medium heat 35-45 minutes, until carrots and potatoes are cooked.

Salt and pepper to taste.  Be careful not to over-salt; add salt more gradually as you taste, until the desired flavor is achieved.

With a salad and garlic bread, this makes a wonderful warming meal in a cold Sukkah.  (Or in our case, a fall Friday-night meal.)

Bon appetit.

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Fasting tip

With Yom Kippur around the corner, it’s time to think about the best way to fast so that we can make it through the day without collapsing during Neilah.

The Cap’n and I have read tips for the long fasts (Yom Kippur, Tisha B’Av) from a number of people over the years.  Most of them suggest carbo-loading shortly before the fast begins, stuffing one’s face with pasta or some such food.

But as the years (and fasts) have gone by, I’ve been less satisfied with this method of fast preparation.  I have a headache before I even go to bed on the evening of the fast (my anticipation headache, I call it) and the Cap’n is good for nothing but napping all afternoon on the fast day.

Then we remembered some interesting facts we’ve come across.  The Cap’n read that children (particularly girls) do much better at school (score higher on tests, concentrate for longer) and are less hungry during the morning when they’ve had protein for breakfast.  I read that professional dancers load up on carbohydrates before a performance, but replenish their muscles afterward by eating a high-protein meal.

So this year, we decided to experiment before Tisha B’Av.  We ate lots of fruit for two days before the fast, which releases water more slowly than drinking glass after glass of water the day before the fast.  Then the day before the fast we had a starchy lunch, but about an hour before the fast, made a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches each.  We felt very full for the rest of the evening, but how would we feel the next day?

As it turned out, much better than in the past.  I take advantage of the heter for nursing mothers to eat and drink shiurim (a small mouthful of food or cheekful of water every 9 minutes), but I usually try to fast until noon of the fast day.  This year, that was a very easy task, and in the end one piece of buttered toast and a glass of water was all I needed to get through the fast very comfortably.  The Cap’n felt much better too, and was awake for much of the afternoon of the fast.

Half-fasts can be eased by making a peanut butter (and jelly) sandwich and keeping it at the ready.  Set the alarm for half an hour before the fast begins, wash, eat the sandwich, drink water (or milk; the Cap’n can’t eat a pb/j sandwich without a glass of milk), bentsh, brush teeth (if you’re awake enough) and go back to bed.  The fast should go very smoothly.

Any other fasting suggestions are welcome.  I’m not a coffee drinker, but some of my best friends are, and their methods of fast preparation differ.  Some wean themselves off caffeine in advance, while others overdose the day before the fast to help them get through it without the weaning process.

Easy fasting.

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More eye candy

My friend Heather is one of the great corrupting influences in my life.  She introduced me to Cake Wrecks, and now every few days I click over and catch up on the madness of professionally decorated cakes gone horribly, hilariously wrong.  No matter how wiped out, down, or stressed I am, Jen can usually get at least one serious belly laugh out of me.

And just today in my inbox I had another email from Heather–this one alerting me to Epicute, a “cute food blog.”  Most of the food is approximately 80% sugar, but I think that’s all to the good.  First of all, food made from sugar can reach dizzying heights of beauty.  (Remember Hansel and Gretel?)  Second, perhaps if I look at enough blogs like this it will satisfy my nearly insatiable craving for sweets.  You know, like when I worked at McDonald’s and they’d put me in front of the fry vat.  I could go to work hungry, and 8 hours later go home satiated (without having eaten anything).

That’s my hope anyway.

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Don’t get this holiday

Why is Rosh Hashana, on which we pig out on sweet foods, the most solemn day (two days, actually) of the year, while Yom Kippur, on which we fast, is supposed to be the most joyous?

I get Pesach, and I get Shavuot.  I’m working on Purim.  But I don’t get Rosh Hashana at all.

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Diplomatic lipstick

The Cap’n and I happened across some old friends (from our Beit Shemesh days) the other evening.  We spent a few minutes chatting, catching up, filling each other in on our families and their doings.

Then the husband asked, with a gloating sort of edge to his voice, “So, what do the people in your neighborhood think of the impending freeze?”  I have begun to feel the air cool from summer, and nights are positively heavenly with the windows open, but I think we’re still a couple of months from our first frost.

Then the coin dropped, and I realized he meant the settlement freeze.  (It was that gloating edge that tipped me off.)

The short answer is that people in my neighborhood are not thrilled.  But that’s only the short answer.  The long answer is longer (as you can imagine).

I shouldn’t think the Arabs in neighboring villages are too thrilled either.  Twelve thousand Arabs rely on construction in the settlements to make their living.  (I blogged about this previously.)  How is freezing settlement growth going to help feed them and their families?  What is the PA doing to ensure that these men can take home a paycheck every month?  And if the PA does nothing to help these families survive their sudden unemployment, what will be the result?  Will crime rates be affected?  Will children go hungry?  Will Hamas gain traction in Judea and Samaria?  And most importantly, will we be any closer to peace?

It’s a popular notion that settlements are the key obstacle to peace in the region.  (Kind of like the notion that Israel is the greatest threat to peace in the world right now.)  To embrace this notion, however, one must be willing to ignore the fact that Israel fought three wars before a single settlement was built.  One must also be willing to ignore the fact that Ehud Barak offered Yassir Arafat an incredibly generous gift of land for peace (which would have entailed dismantling many settlements) in 2000, and that Arafat turned it down.  And a similar gift was offered Mahmoud Abbas by Ehud Olmert, with the identical response.

The “peace process” has been marked by fits and starts.  Changes in administration always seem to call into question previous agreements with former heads of state (or terror group).  Hamas doesn’t want to be held to anything the PA does.  Netanyahu is less willing to give things away for free than Barak or Sharon were.  And now Obama doesn’t want to honor agreements and understandings made by his predecessor which allow for settlement growth.

And let’s face it—if you want to go after someone in the region who’s visible, who’s controversial, and who people like to say is in violation of “international law”, the settlers are an easy target.  In the eyes of the world, Israelis are the demons of Planet Earth.  And religious Israelis are the demons of Israel.  And settlers are the demons of the religious world.  (Not all settlers are religious, but the ones whose pictures make the paper nearly always are.)

And let’s face it—the REAL stumbling blocks to peace are too overwhelming to contemplate: Jew-hatred in the Arab curriculum, a corrupt Palestinian Arab government more interested in warfare and lining its own pockets than embracing the real job of government (i.e. build infrastructure, establish peace and security, build an economy, create an educational curriculum that educates its children to be members of the wider world), an unshakable cultural imperative to bring down one’s enemies before building oneself up.  Those are things the West and Israel can do nothing about—they must come about from within Arab society.

But the settlers—those are an easy target.  Settlements can be seen, and their construction is within our grasp.  If we order them stopped, we can at least feel as though we have some control over the situation.  It may not bring peace (correction: It certainly will NOT bring peace) but at least no one can say we didn’t do what we could.

There’s only one problem with this approach: it won’t work.  Hamas doesn’t give a hoot about settlements over the “green line.”  The whole country’s over the “green line” to them, and Tel Aviv is a settlement to be dismantled like any other.  Freezing settlements is not going to win any points with Hamas, Hizbullah (which has rearmed in Lebanon in preparation for its next scrap with Israel), or Iran (ditto, but with nukes).  Practically speaking, with Arabs out of work, the housing shortage in Israel unaddressed, and the world bleating that the planet is unsafe as long as Israel’s around, how is a freeze on settlement growth going to help?

To recycle a popular expression, the settlement freeze is the diplomatic equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig.

Now ain’t that purty?

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These last few weeks have been packed and difficult.  Returning from the U.S., unpacking, finding things missing, the start of cold season, school starting, parent meetings, signing the kids up for activities, helping friends settle in Efrat, the high holidays coming and, in the last week or two, several upsetting illnesses and deaths.

The latest is the death of an acquaintance’s three-month old baby.  The baby was ill from the time of his birth, and spent his early weeks (possibly his entire life) in the hospital.  The community through which I know the father is a supportive one, and groups of its members were carpooling to Tel Aviv to donate blood (or blood products) to help the baby survive.  This week I learned that the struggle is over, and the young couple is now sitting shiva for their first child.

I know there was a time when infant mortality was high, and such incidents were not unusual.  But I don’t think for a minute that that made them any easier.  The hope that parents pour into each and every pregnancy and new baby, the expectation of seeing that baby grow to adulthood, and the love that it is impossible not to lavish on them (not to mention the hormones hard-wired in a mother that make her a little cuckoo when it comes to her children) cannot be helped.

So as I paced my room last night at 1 AM with a tired but stuffy-nosed Bill (who complained any time I tried to lie down with him), exhausted and ready to collapse, feeling the beginnings of a headache and wondering when I was ever going to get to sleep (not at all, as it turned out), I knew exactly how lucky I was.

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Coping with sadness

Back in July, RivkA of Coffee and Chemo had one of the most insightful posts I’ve ever read.  She said she used to think that there were people with complicated, difficult lives, and people with easy, smooth-going lives.  Nowadays, she still believes that there are two types of people, but the two types are “1. People whose lives are complex and 2. People who you do not know so well.”

I’ve thought about this ever since I read it, and have been thinking about this lately in particular as I’ve learned that a student in the school in which Ilana-Davita teaches committed suicide—the second student to do so in six months.  In addition, the sister of a friend of mine died last week—by all appearances a suicide.

These incidents have a much different effect on the living than surviving someone who has died of illness or sudden accident.  Death always seems to make us take stock of our lives, but suicide seems to create doubt in our minds, to bring guilt to the surface, to make us ask why someone would choose death over life.  We feel betrayed, rejected, abandoned when someone leaves us on purpose.  We blame ourselves for not knowing how the person felt, and try to imagine what we might have done to contribute to the person’s misery and unhappiness, or what we should have done to alleviate his suffering.

And yet.  While a rabbi in my neighborhood commented on Shabbat that the woman’s death last week was a wake-up call to all of us, I learned at the shiva that there was no sign of discontent in her life, that she was in good health, she had a good job, a beautiful loving immediate and extended family, and that she was the sort of person who, when things got beyond her ability to deal with them, would ask for help from others.  Whether she had an unknown source of unhappiness, or whether there is some other explanation, the family may never know.

But this brings me back to RivkA’s point.  We may believe we know the people closest to us, but sometimes we just don’t.  I don’t share every single thought or worry that I have with others, no matter how close they are to me.  And I know there’s plenty that goes on in the minds of my husband and children that I know nothing about.

For someone to be driven to the point where she believes she cannot ask for help, or accept help, and would rather devastate those closest to her than deal with her problems is a very serious point indeed.  We don’t like being unable to understand things, which makes it all the harder to understand how someone could make a decision like that.  What balance of worry, coping skills, and mental stability (or instability) came together in this person to result in something so final and, seemingly, unnecessary?  We see people deal with life-threatening illness, grief, poverty, abuse, and personal disaster every day—why did this person think he couldn’t cope?

I sometimes use literature to help me work through my thoughts.  I love the play Romeo and Juliet, and consider myself very fortunate to have been able to teach it once to a class of bright 10th graders.  It’s one of the few works in the curriculum that I think speaks to kids in their early teens.  But as we know, it involves lots of death, and a double suicide at the end.  I was not insensitive to this when teaching my students, and the day they walked in after having finished the play, I took a few minutes to discuss with them the ending.  How did it come about?  What role did the adults play?  How much of the play’s action was dictated by the youth and impulsiveness of the characters?  What were their alternatives?  What would have happened to them in the long run if they had not married one another secretly?  I finished by making the point—based on my own experience, that of my family and friends, and that of others I have known—that the human spirit can absorb an enormous amount of insult, abuse, disappointment, and heartache, and still recover.  Just because Romeo and Juliet couldn’t see beyond their immediate circumstances does not mean that they would not have had a full life, filled with joy, contentment, and productivity ahead of them.  When a door closes in one place, a door often opens somewhere else; it’s merely a question of finding it.

May the aggrieved be comforted, and may we all live in the knowledge that while we cannot always see the future, it is there waiting for us.

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Cleaning lessons

Hashem has blessed the Cap’n and me with four adorable, delightful children.  But as most parents know, kids don’t come with a “cleaning chip” installed in their brains.

So one of the great challenges of my life in recent years has been to find the right combination of teaching, reminding, reprimanding, and doling out of unpleasant consequences (you know, punishment) for failure to pick up one’s own possessions and put them away.

I have some compassion for the Crunch girls, because they don’t have large amounts of their own space in which to dump their clutter.  The three of them share a room, and since Israeli closets rarely include those most excellent junk depositories known as “drawers,” they are forced to tuck them between socks and pajamas, or dump them next to their beds.  On a trip to IKEA last year, I picked up a set of six drawers to allow the girls to store personal items, giving them two drawers each.  But for pack-rats, that’s just not enough.  (Of course, I have the same system for their father in the form of his old foot locker, in which to store memorabilia from years past.  Once the locker is full, he has to part with things to make room for more.)

I devised weekly charts for each child with a grid reflecting the chores I expect each child to do (tailored to the child based on age) and a space to put a small sticker when the chore is done.  One of these chores is picking up one’s things, and keeping their room and playroom tidy.  A small amount of mess is permitted in the playroom, since they will occasionally come back to a game.  But the bedroom has to be kept tidy because it’s a much smaller shared space and tidiness is a form of consideration, something the Cap’n and I think is important to teach, especially in the context of family life.

I had hoped that the presence of this chore on the chart would serve as a motivator for them.  (The more stickers they have at the end of a week, the greater a percentage of their total possible allowance they receive.  A pitiful week gets them a half-allowance disbursement; a good week, with about 80% of their stickers, gets them their full allowance.)  Alas, it has not proved to be so.  My children are not all good readers (at least in English) so either reviewing the contents of the chart for them would be in order.  I could also put it in Hebrew, which the eldest two read well.

But even were I to do those things, my expectations of their tidiness performance are limited.  This is why I reached back into my employment past to the year I worked with kids in residential treatment and some of the practices we employed there.  I worked in a “cottage” in what was officially a mental health facility with girls ages 8-14.  With a dozen or so girls in the cottage, neatness was understandably an issue.  The children’s daily routines allowed for regular tidying times, but for items left unclaimed at the conclusion of such times, there was “confo box.”  This was a cardboard box in which stray clothing items, toys, books, or other tchotchkes were put to be redeemed (for a small ransom) at the end of the week.  In the past week I have adopted a cardboard box for the Crunch family’s confo box.  Roller blading pads and wrist guards left out in the garden for the birds to poop on were rescued and put in the box.  A bag of crafting supplies that Beans was instructed on numerous occasions to put away were added.  And I’m not above putting errant pairs of shoes or discarded dirty socks in there.  All items are redeemed on a mandatory basis for a small fee (half-shekel for large items like the pads, 10 agurot for smaller items).  The fee goes directly in the tzedaka box.

When I was looking for graduate programs in psychology almost half a lifetime ago, I met with a professor at the University of Washington.  She told me her area of interest was motivation.  I nearly laughed out loud.  “M&M-ing!” I thought, remembering Psych 101.  How could someone possibly spend all her professional time and energy doing that?

But as every parent knows, getting kids to do their homework, eat their vegetables, and clean their rooms is ALL about motivation.

Now I know.

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A new, cool, creative blog!

At lunch today, my neighbor Andy told me about a blog he came across recently, called Creative Jewish Mom. I just checked it out.

It’s gorgeous! Beans is always interesting in making crafts, and this woman, with talent in design, photography, gardening, and pretty much everything else that truly matters, is a great source of inspiration. I’m adding her to my blogroll, and checking out her suggestions for things to make and do for Rosh Hashanah.  Happy crafting!

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Ordeal By Hunger

One of the books I read last summer was Ordeal By Hunger, an historical account of the journey of 87 pioneer men, women, and children who set out from the plains of Kansas for California in 1846.

This book is required reading in some high school social studies departments.  It is a thoroughly researched account by historian George R. Stewart, who reconstructed their harrowing journey through desert, thick forest, and the Sierra Nevada mountains in winter, following a barely-explored route to California aggressively promoted by a way-too-mavericky explorer.

I found it to be a brilliant account of the human psyche in the face of every-increasing stress, disappointment, fear, and possible death.  How do they keep their courage up in the face of adversity?  How do they deal with disappointment?  How do they cope with scarcity?  How do they work together as a group when faced with daunting tasks?  How do families and family groups treat each other on the long, hard journey?  How do they help or hurt each other?  Stewart details their heroism, skiving off, hoarding, sharing, selfishness, selflessness, risk-taking, risk-avoidance, alliance, betrayal, and—in the worst possible circumstances—cannibalism.  Where The Grapes of Wrath is a fictional account of a poor family’s migration to California during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl days, this is an historical account no less gripping and heartbreaking (and probably more so because it’s nonfiction).  My edition includes numerous appendices including correspondence and diary entries from some members of the party, as well as an analysis of an early journalist’s attempt to gather information about the journey by interviewing survivors, sometimes decades after the events.

This particular chapter in American history is valuable in my opinion because it highlights a number of issues that Americans encountered as they drifted westward: exploitation by those who were supposedly interested in “helping” the emigrants travel and settle; the vulnerability of a group of plains farmers with no mountaineering or military skills to aid them when faced with the Sierra Nevada in December and American Indians who relied in part on scavenging off of pioneer cattle for their sustenance; and the inability to rouse much assistance for the settlers trapped in the snowy mountains while California was being hotly contested in the Mexican War.

From a human standpoint, it is both heartbreaking and inspiring to see the increasing discouragement and disappointment as they cached their belongings along the road, cut their way through dense thickets and woods, traveled for days without water and watched their cattle go mad from dehydration.  The survivors lucky enough to make it to California alive lost nearly all of their possessions, and usually family members to hypothermia, disease, and starvation.  Most heart-breaking was to read of parents as they lost their children and children as they lost their parents and to the life-and-death decisions on part of families to split up in order to try to get help, wondering if they’ll ever see each other again.

I’m a Westerner by birth and upbringing.  We learned in school about Lewis and Clark, the pioneers, and the Oregon Trail.  We took field trips from school to see the forts built to shelter the pioneers and visited Indian reservations that preserved for the public the history and culture of their native population.  But never before did I fully appreciate what some pioneers and their families encountered when traveling west.  Never had I read about how this population, too, was preyed upon by self-serving profiteers and snake-oil salesmen.  And I had rarely heard about the far-reaching effects of one of the U.S.’s least-studied wars (despite the fact that a third of the continental U.S.—including the entire southwest and Texas—was acquired as a result of it).

It’s yet another example of why I am grateful to live in this time and place, when my own family’s toughest obstacle in moving to California was abandoning our broken-down Cadillac on the shoulder of Interstate 10 in the Mojave Desert, and riding the rest of the way in our un-air-conditioned station wagon with the wind in our hair and the dog’s breath in our faces.

It’s also why from now on I will think twice before saying “I’m starving” when it’s only been a few hours since I’ve eaten.

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Years ago, when I was pregnant with Beans, my first, the Cap’n and I were up late watching television.  There was an episode of “E.R.” on where one of the plot lines involved a kid brought to the hospital after collapsing on a school trip.  It turns out the kid had measles, and ended up dying in the emergency room.  Further inquiry into the case turned up the fact that the child’s parents had opted not to vaccinate him.

How he managed to get through school (especially public school in America) without being current in his vaccinations escapes me.  But the real point was the fact that despite widespread immunization programs in the U.S., diseases like measles have not yet been eradicated.  I remember as a child an outbreak of measles in our area, and my parents taking us on a Saturday to a school gym many miles from where we lived in order to get my sister vaccinated.

This made a conversation I had recently with another mom about our children all the more interesting.  She’s a new immigrant to Israel, and I was telling her about our experiences with Tipat Chalav (the well-child clinic) and Nurse Evil who works there (sister to Dr. Evil, I’m convinced).  She smiled at my stories, and said, “Well, I won’t be taking my children there.”  “You won’t?” I asked.  “No,” she answered.  “I don’t vaccinate them.”

The way she said that last sentence was with the same casual assurance as one might use to say, “I don’t spank my children” or “We don’t eat non-kosher food in our house.”

This fascinates me for a number of reasons.  Most of my home-schooling friends here and in the States don’t vaccinate their children either.  (This mom’s kids go to regular schools here in Israel.)  I suspect their reasons include the fact that their children aren’t in regular contact with children they don’t know, they believe that these diseases are essentially eradicated, they don’t need to vaccinate since everyone else does, and some developmental difficulties have been correlated with (note I don’t say “caused by”) administration of some vaccines.  There may be other reasons as well, but these are the ones I can guess at or have heard.

The Cap’n and I have chosen to vaccinate our children against all the typical diseases (measles, mumps, rubella, polio, whooping cough, hepatitis A and B, and the rest) except chicken pox, which we will do as late as possible.  (Despite the vaccine being given for a couple of decades, no one seems to know how long it’s good for, and when a booster might be required.  Since the result of a woman coming in contact with chicken pox while pregnant is usually quite bad, and because we have three daughters, we will have them get the vaccine as late as possible in the hope that it will carry them through their child-bearing years at least.)  We believe that despite what some people may think, these diseases still exist on the planet, and while the chance of catching them has been drastically reduced, the morbidity and misery associated with them is not worth taking the risk.  Our children are healthy, thank God, and we have observed no ill effects from giving our children the vaccines against them.

What I do find interesting is that in the population I know that doesn’t vaccinate, all the same sorts of anomalies in children exist as in the vaccinated population—developmental delays, ADD, personality disorders, learning disabilities, and sensory integration difficulties.  In other words, their children appear comparable (not superior) to vaccinated children in mental and physical health, intelligence, and every other category.

In the end, it’s up to the parents to decide whether the risks (as yet unproven, to my knowledge) of vaccinating outweigh the risks of a child getting ill, and act accordingly.

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All-girls education

I promised in a comment exchange on yesterday’s post to write about single-sex education, and here it is.

Until 11th grade, I attended mostly public, co-ed schools.  I liked school, was a good student, and both because of my success in school and because I was one of the older students in the class, I was often viewed as a leader in my class.

But over the years, I began to notice trends that I didn’t like.  I noticed that girls were often much more concerned with what they looked like (hair, make-up, clothes) than they were with their subjects in school.  Many wouldn’t raise their hand and participate in class.  At the same time, boys were louder, even if they weren’t as smart as the girls in class.  Most of the kids who misbehaved and disrupted the class were boys.  And it was impossible to ignore that a significant amount of the emotional energy of both boys and girls went into trying to appear favorable in front of the opposite sex.  I had friends of both sexes, but often found friendships with boys to be less stressful.

In 11th grade, I opted to try boarding school for my last two years of high school.  I was disgusted with the class sizes, budget cuts, and lousy faculty at my local public high school, and my parents were agreeable.  I applied to a small co-ed prep school and a slightly larger all-girls prep.  I got into both, but because I believed I should cultivate more friendships with other girls, I chose the girls’ school.

I was pleased with my choice.  There were girls I had nothing in common with, just as there had been in public school.  But in general, there was a greater feeling of comradery among my classmates (though I was given to understand that my class was kinder than average for the school).  I loved that there were no boys at the school, so bad-hair days were a source of mirth rather than humiliation.  Spirits ran high at the school, and pranks and fun were around every corner.  The faculty was of a high caliber, and they were there entirely for us girls.  I fell in with a group of girls who were also good students who called themselves the Geek Clique.  We were not the prettiest, or the wealthiest, or the most socially elite, but we stuffed the top slots in the class ranks and had a wonderful time.

I had a similar experience in college, where I chose a large state university because it was cheap, and ended up pining for the more intimate, serious atmosphere of a women’s college.  (I transferred to a women’s college in the middle of my sophomore year.)  And I had similar experiences in Jewish learning and graduate school, starting in co-ed and ultimately choosing all-women’s settings.

Early in our marriage, the Cap’n brought home a book from the library entitled All Girls: Single-sex education and why it matters by Karen Stabiner.  It was a fascinating read, and while I was already sold on all-girls’ education, the Cap’n lacked my first-hand experience and learned a good deal about the issue from the book.  In the end, we both hoped our girls would have access to that education at some point in their lives.

I know most of the criticisms of all-girls’ education.  It’s not the real world.  What are boys supposed to do if the girls go off and learn at all-girls’ schools?  Aren’t girls from all-girls’ schools at a grave disadvantage when it comes to functioning in the world of men?

First of all, school is about as far from the real world as anything can be, and it doesn’t matter whether boys are there or not.  The purpose of school is not to recreate the read world; it’s to do something to prepare children for it.  (Or, if you’re really cynical, to keep kids occupied while their parents are at work.)  School isn’t like a job; there’s no pay (except grades), no practical skills taught that could help one make a living.  In my view, it doesn’t really matter that it’s not the real world; the goal is to create the best environment possible for children to learn.  By eliminating some of the factors that distract or interfere with learning (such as the pressures that accompany the presence of the opposite sex), one gives girls the best chance at succeeding in school.

Never fear; there are not nearly enough all-girls schools to siphon off a significant portion of the female population, denying the boys what many claim is the “civilizing factor” that girls provide in co-ed schools.  There are enough parents and adults who remain convinced that co-ed school is more like the real world to keep all the girls from fleeing such schools.

And no, girls from all-girls’ schools are not at a disadvantage when functioning in the world of men.  Having been nurtured in an environment which is created for them—for their style of communicating, for their needs, for their extra-curriculars, for their ways of learning—they emerge with confidence, strength, and assertiveness.  They are accustomed to hearing female voices—voices which are often shouted down in the world of men.  They are in a better position to scrutinize the world and if they find it lacking, see where it needs to be improved.

I believe that girls educated in all-girls’ or all-women’s institutions see the world differently.  When I began graduate school in a large New England campus, I couldn’t help but notice that a large portion of the campus was dominated by a stadium.  And this stadium, I knew from attending women’s colleges that didn’t have them, was two things to the college: a large money-maker for the institution, and a monument to men’s sports (i.e. testosterone).  There were sports halls where women’s sports were held, but it doesn’t take a Ph.D. sociologist to notice that the sports most people (especially men) turn out for are played by men.  I couldn’t help but think how primitive that is, how gladiator-like.

I have women friends who totally reject the value of girls’ education.  If they had the option, they would probably send their girls to co-ed schools all their lives.  (Religious education in Israel, however, rarely offers this as an option.)  But I believe these women are unusual in their personalities.  They are intellectual power-houses, outspoken, and blissfully unaware of some of the pressures girls feel when in school in co-ed environments.  They are not typical, in my opinion.

I no more think of myself as putting my daughters at a disadvantage by giving them single-sex educations than I do by changing Bill’s diapers.  It is true that in the real world there will be no one to wait on him hand and foot like I am now.  But it doesn’t change the fact that he needs this kind of care and nurturing now to prepare him for the challenges of the real world, just as it will be nice when Banana gets to girls’ kindergarten next year and doesn’t answer the question, “How was your day?” with “Good—no one hitted me, no one kicked me, and no one pushed me off a chair.”

Whether we will make the decision to send Bill through an all-boys track, or keep him with girls as long as possible remains to be seen.  I imagine it will depend on his personality, how he socializes with other children, and his own desires.

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Tzniut adventure, Grade 1

I found myself in an interesting situation today with Peach’s school.  At about 8:00 this morning, I got a call from the principal of the school telling me that Peach had turned up at school in pants.  I knew she had put on pants because I had helped her get them out personally, since the girls have sports today.  The fact that she had made it out of the house without putting a skirt on over the pants was a bit of a surprise.  (She got past her father, me, and her two sisters without any of us noticing.  It’s been a long, relaxed summer with the girls wearing shorts with no skirt on over them, so not too surprising when one pauses to reflect.)

However, instead of seeing this as an oversight and saying, “Peach seems to have forgotten to wear a skirt today.  Are you available to bring her one?” the principal chose to assume I was an ignoramus and informed me that this is a National Religious school (a fact of which I was already aware, having chosen the school myself, thank you very much), and that as a result of this infraction, Peach would be made to sit in the secretaries’ office until such time as I and the skirt materialized.  I got off the phone with him, fetched a skirt from Peach’s closet, and fired up the Crunchmobile to take it to her.

The whole trip there, I made an effort to temper my irritation since it was anyone’s guess what emotional state I would find Peach in when I arrived.  After a bit of hide-and-seek, I managed to find Peach’s classroom first, and introduced myself to the teacher.  She said Peach was still in the secretaries’ office, and sent one of Peach’s classmates to show me where it was.  When I arrived, Peach was seated in a chair, with her trademark mild expression on her face.  She smiled when she saw me, and when I asked her if she’d forgotten her skirt this morning, she giggled.  I gave it to her to put on, and then she took my hand and took me back to her classroom.  I gave the teacher a stern look and asked, “Is everything all right now?”  She came up, put an arm around Peach, and apologized profusely, assuring me that it was not her choice to isolate Peach in that way.  She gave me to understand that it is a policy the school adheres to, but that she agrees that it’s a bit much for a little girl to receive for simple forgetfulness.  I in turn assured her that Peach simply forgot, that it’s the first time she’s ever forgotten, that we were focused on the fact that Peach needed something UNDER her skirt to keep her panties from public view during sports, and that I have four children and sometimes miss things.  She was very understanding and, I think, communicates more compassionate to the children than the head.

I was warned by more than one person not to send Peach to this school.  There is a school closer to where we live that she could attend, but Peach was adamant after her wonderful experience in an all-girls kindergarten last year that she wanted to be in a girls’ school for first grade.  The Cap’n and I are firm believers in single-sex education for girls (for boys is another matter entirely), and were happy to comply.  But clearly there are areas in which we will clash philosophically with the school and its head.

I know what the head is trying to achieve.  He wants to establish clearly at the beginning what the school’s dress code is, and to make clear to the girls that girls who deviate from it significantly (Peach was in the equivalent of off-white hot pants today) will need to remedy the situation before they can participate in their class’s activities.  On the other hand, as I’ve stated, he is also sending the message that what you wear is more important than what you learn.

But had Peach been of a different personality (Beans’s, for example), I might have found her sitting in a puddle of tears awaiting me and her skirt this morning, and then I would not have held back my wrath from the head.

I’ll let it all slide today, because I doubt Peach will repeat this oversight, and she’s none the worse for wear.

But I have my eye on that man.

Update: Upon further questioning about the incident, Peach told me this evening that the head had actually offered her the choice of wearing a school-issue skirt (“someone else’s skirt,” Peach called it) and returning to her class, or sitting in the office until I got there with her skirt.  Peach herself chose the latter.  She also said that she had felt like crying when it happened, because she’d never been in this situation before, but wanted to show she was a big first grader, and managed to keep herself from breaking down.  Brave thing.  It makes me more favorably disposed toward the head, that is certain.

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Adoring Obama

One of my goals when I was in America was to talk to people about their impressions of President Barack Obama after 7 months of office.

I must admit, I’m more than a little concerned.

Our dyed-in-the-wool Republican friends say that Obama is deceptive—promising to do one thing, then doing something else entirely—and that anyone who attempts to criticize him is branded a racist.  One pundit quoted by our friends stated that Obama is the greatest B.S. artist ever elected leader of the free world.

Okay, so that’s our dyed-in-the-wool friend.  Still, through his diatribe there may be a glimmer of truth.  Which glimmer that is, I’m not sure, but it got my attention.

The other two individuals I grilled particularly hard about Obama were the Cap’n’s and my fathers.  (My mother is mostly apolitical and my mother-in-law doesn’t care to discuss politics).  Both of our fathers are very devoted supporters of the President, so I hoped to glean a sense of their impressions of him.  Both seemed to think that Obama is a great improvement over his predecessor on the domestic front (a point with which I think it would be difficult to argue).  They are pleased that he is encouraging the auto industry to find ways to curtail the U.S.’s dependency on oil.  They supported the idea of reforming the health care system (though my father still has difficulty divorcing himself from the American insistence on tying health care to employment).  And they say they think he will do good things for re-establishing America’s good standing in the wider world.

This last claim caught my attention, not least because neither father could provide any examples of this in action.  And I’m skeptical of Obama’s efforts in this area based on what he said in his speech in Cairo a few months ago.  Its conciliatory tone I’m sure showed potential for thawing relations between America and the Arab world.  But the conciliatory nature of the speech verged a few times into kowtowing, which I think is not constructive.  Obama stated several times in his speech that it is important to tell the truth in assessing the state of the Middle East, then went on to hold Israel responsible for the statelessness of Arab Palestinians, for the squalor of Gaza, and for the stalemate in negotiations for a Palestinian state.  Oh, and I nearly forgot—mentioned nothing about the millennia-long connection Jews have to this land, instead painting Israel as a state founded on the ashes of the Shoah.  And what did he have to say to the Palestinian Arabs?  Stop the violence.  That’s it.

Truth?  Well, perhaps he told some of it.  Or some version of some of it.  If I were an Arab listening to him, I’d think to myself, “At last—an Arab sympathizer in the White House.  At last—someone who will proclaim to the world the helplessness, haplessness, and hopelessness of the Palestinian people, who have never had so much as a chance at a state.  At last—someone who will sock it to the Israelis, hold them fully responsible for the state the Arab world is in.”  If I were an Arab listening to Obama, I’d have tuned out all the drivel about giving women equal rights (that would be against my cultural values, after all), the call for Palestinians to give up violence (how else can a frustrated people express their rage and anguish?) and the demand that the Arab world recognize Israel (that would be against all my political aspirations and what my Arab education taught me).

I don’t subscribe to some of the beliefs that float around about the Republican party.  I don’t believe George W. Bush was the greatest friend Israel ever had, unless greatness is measured in terms of how long it takes the president to start worrying about his legacy, dreaming of a Nobel Peace Prize, and begin browbeating Israel to make unrequited concessions in the name of Peace.  If that’s the yardstick, then Obama is definitely Israel’s greatest enemy of all time.

I don’t really know anything about Obama that makes me think he’s a bad person.  The Atlantic Ocean is a great buffer zone to filter out the adoration many say he enjoys in the press.  (That, and the fact that I don’t read news reports regularly.)  I believe he understands America’s greatest needs now, and will do what he can to meet them (however much that will be).  And I appreciate that he wishes to improve America’s standing in the world.  George W. Bush’s policy of antagonism and ready epithets did not always reveal a great amount of maturity or thought.

But I am also concerned about what I and many others in my immediate vicinity perceive as a lack of moral compass in Europe, which may be spreading to America.  The headiness of having unloaded a Republican White House and Congress in one fell swoop seems to have some Americans abandoning their accustomed scrutiny of their leadership, and just trusting that he will do the right thing.  My conversations with my father revealed that he is not terribly aware of what Obama is doing in the foreign policy area.  Those with my father-in-law revealed the same.  I’m happy that they have a president they like, but I’m concerned about Americans adoring him so much that they stop paying careful attention to what he does, or fail to criticize him when he misspeaks—or worse, lies—to the world.

I posted a couple of months ago about the speech given by Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, which took issue with Obama’s speech.  I hope others in America are watching Obama as carefully to make sure he does what he says he will do, that he tells the truth as he says he will, and that he is subject to the same level of critique as other politicians.

The Cap’n tells me that the best governments in Israel are usually the conservative ones, because the liberal press act as a watchdog on them, and feel free to criticize them when they foul up.  The opposite—a liberal government—is the worst here, because the editors and publishers of most newspapers and magazines are generally liberal thinkers, and pay less attention to corruption or serious screw-ups on the part of liberal politicians.  David Landau, an editor of HaAretz, styled the most sophisticated newspaper in Israel (i.e. best-written), has said on record that his paper “had ‘wittingly soft-pedalled’ alleged corruption by Israeli political leaders including prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, when, in the opinion of Haaretz, the policies of those leaders were advancing the peace process.”  There you have it, folks, right from the horse’s mouth.

Let’s not let America go down this icky, sticky road.  Any country blessed with freedom of the press should consider it a duty to exercise that freedom.  And any country where people are free to vote for the candidate of their choice should do so with expectations of that candidate.  America is in far too deep a hole in nearly every sense—economically, environmentally, with regard to health care, education, and foreign relations—to entrust their welfare unquestioningly to anyone.

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I’ve been keeping a log in recent months of English language errors that get up my nose.  If I see a glaring mistake once, I write it off as a mistake.  But if I see it more than once, I begin to worry that it’s a trend.  Here are some examples of things that I am seeing with alarming frequency:

The word supposably.  It was cute coming out of the mouth of the Boston-Irish accountant at the Archdiocese when I temped there oh-so-many-years ago.  But it’s really not a word, and if you’re not Maureen McCarthy, don’t think about using it.

I should of turned left at Albuquerque. I know how this one gets started; it’s how the contraction “should’ve” sounds.  But “should’ve” is  short for “should have,” not “should of.”

For once and for all. I saw this in the Jerusalem Post a couple of months ago and wrote it off as one of the Post‘s many errors.  Then it turned up in Daniel Gordis’s newest book, Saving Israel.  The expression is “once and for all.”  Please make a note of it.

For all intensive purposes. Someone please tell me what an “intensive purpose” is.  I’m dying to know.  (The correct expression is “for all intents and purposes.”)

Fleeing the coop.  Chickens “fly the coop.”   But perhaps if they come from a particularly dysfunctional coop, I suppose one could say they “flee.”

In general, I thought the team of Jackson, Boyens and Walsh did an excellent job on the screenplay for The Lord of the Rings.  But I’ve always been bothered by the weird line they give Elrond in his speech about how the walls of evil are closing in on the forces of good: “Our list of allies grows thin.”  I loved the consonance between “list” and “thin” (as, I imagine, did they) but it doesn’t make any sense.  Lists grow short, not thin.

$300 million dollars.  I did this one myself recently.  REDUNDANT!

Ruthie Blum Leibowitz wrote in the Post recently: “Now is the time for the Israeli and American media to step up to the plate and further, for once and for all, the cause of genuine freedom fighters, as opposed to those who are misrepresented as such by themselves and by their Western apologists, among them a large portion of the press.”  Nudge nudge.  Psssst!  Copy editor?  Yeah, you.  No sleepin’ on the job.

While there is no hard-clad prescription to deal with such a religiously convoluted reality.”  Fool-proof?  I’ve heard of hard-clad rules, and I think the Monitor and the Merrimack were pretty hard-clad.  But prescriptions are more delicate things.  I don’t think hard-clad describes them at all well.

Did she not experience terrible shame in having to drivel in the face of her rabbi?”  This was written about a woman whose rabbi told her to spit in his face to save her marriage.  (It’s a long story.)  I suspect the writer of this sentence meant “dribble,” but even that doesn’t adequately describe the necessary propulsive, spraying action of spitting.  If he had instructed her to blather on about some nonsense to him, THAT would have been drivel.

If I were a fourth-grade teacher and saw these errors, I would conclude that the writers of this stuff were about where they should be.  But I would bet a pound to a penny that these writers all worked their way well past fourth grade.  (Besides, the errors of fourth graders are much cuter, as indicated by those cute emails that circulate where the kids write about how Magellan circumcised the world with a giant clipper.)  Sigh.  The state of the English language these days–and even worse, the state of the English language user.

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We’re back

The Crunch family is finally back from our August 2009 American odyssey, and in the throes of jetlag.  After many adventures and WAAAAYYYY too much together time as a family, the Crunch girls are delighted to be back at school.  (There are no words to describe how delighted their mother is; it’s times like these where I look at my homeschooling friends and wonder how they manage it.)

It was great to see America again.  Listening to a drash by my rav on Shabbat morning in Newton, sitting again with the same women I sat with for eight and a half years, and having the Cap’n’s birthday meal with the Usual Suspects (with whom we celebrated birthdays every year before making aliyah), topped off with a J.P. Lick’s ice cream cake for dessert, was heaven.  This visit we focused less on sightseeing and more on reconnecting with old friends, some of whom we actually met in Israel over a decade ago, meeting friends’ new babies, and showing our kids a few once-familiar sights again.  (The Boston Children’s Museum is completely different from what it was before.)

We saw our families too, drinking in the green, mountainous landscape of southern Vermont (and being feasted upon by mosquitoes, black flies, and no-see-’ems) with my parents.  Beans learned to ride a bicycle, Bill began clapping and waving, and the Crunch children glued themselves to their cousins for a fortnight.  We shopped at outlets and gorged ourselves on fresh corn and produce from a local farm.  We stocked up on maple cream (which we smear on challah for special occasions).  We swam in a nearby lake and had a bonfire at my sister’s house (built in 1807, with the old brick kitchen oven intact except for the bricks removed to make room for a small modern range, original stenciling on the walls, and my old dining room table and chairs—Martha Stewart, eat your pretentious little heart out).  The kids went blueberrying with my parents and we had blueberry pancakes one morning.  My mother made homemade ice cream.  The Cap’n and I finally saw “Napoleon Dynamite,” buying us a little cultural capital with my niece and nephews.  (I learned from this movie that “chicks like guys with skills: numchuk skills, bow-hunting skills, computer hacking skills.”)  We saw it rain…more than once.  It was beautiful.

We topped off the visit with a trip to Niagara Falls with the Crunches, Sr.  Bill wasn’t impressed with the Maid of the Mist; he’d rather have been sitting on a bench nursing.  But it was amazing being on a boat surrounded on three sides by walls of roaring, falling water.  And the next day we took them to an amusement park where they were amused by all the rides, and I was amused watching them be amused.

It wasn’t fun being the designated packer for a family of six, especially when we checked four bags leaving Israel and eleven coming back (and the shopping on this trip was much more restrained than on our last visit to the U.S.).  But we had a wonderful time, the girls are all set for clothes for the next year (and then some), I’m set for DVDs (a few dozen, which should do me very well for the next few months), we’ve got some great pictures and videos, and we’re back in our own beds.

The one thing that has eluded me for a month has been sleep.  Jetlag getting to the U.S., kids up at dawn stampeding across wooden floors, few opportunities to nap, and now jetlag again.  But, as the Cap’n likes to say, “sleep makes me irritable.”

It’s good to be back.

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